Free swimming turned into a free-for-all: Why Rochester pools shut down in the middle of a heat wave
Overwhelming numbers amid hot weather and free access helped fuel safety concerns during open-swim times, so city officials are working on a plan to address issues.
People jumping the Soldiers Field pool fence, fighting with fellow patrons and lifeguards, and ignoring the rules led to the shutdown of Rochester’s two public pools Wednesday.
“It’s possible it might be a couple days, and it’s possible it might be a little longer,” Ben Boldt, recreation supervisor for Rochester's Parks and Recreation department, said of the closing. “It just kind of depends on how quickly we can rally the groups and get a plan developed that everyone can be comfortable with.”
He said discussions with city administrators and others were starting Wednesday afternoon and parks staff has reached out to other groups who might be able to help address concerns.
The sudden shutdown was disappointing for Andrea Alverez, who arrived at the pool at noon Wednesday with her daughter and two younger brothers.
The Rochester resident said they had attempted to swim Tuesday but were turned away because the pool was filled to capacity.
“I was upset because we came in a rush,” she said of the earlier trip.
Rochester resident Nick Rhodes was also at the pool at noon, with the goal of using a swim to wind down after a work shift that started at 3 a.m.
He hadn’t given up the goal, but had to change plans. “I’ll find an indoor pool and swim,” he said.
For Angie Dischinger, who was visiting from Brainerd, Wednesday was set to be the second pool trip with her grandson. Instead she said they'd likely visit a family member who is in the hospital and then consider whether to find a pool in a neighboring community.
“I’m glad we got to go in yesterday,” she said, adding that she hadn’t had any safety concerns during the visit.
Autumn Kappes, CEO of Rochester Swim Club Orcas, said the concerns had been brewing since the Soldiers Field pool opened Saturday.
“I think it’s been a perfect storm of hot weather, we’ve been closed for a year, free admission and only one pool being opened, so it just got out of hand,” she said.
The swim team contracts to manage the city pools and the Silver Lake pool was set to open Wednesday, but Kappes said the city opted to address safety practices first.
With increased issues, the swim team increased staffing to 11 lifeguards by Monday, when a typical day would see five on staff.
With adult and student lifeguards responsible for all aspects of the operation, from watching the water to monitoring concessions and the entrance, Kappes said the work became overwhelming, with up to 550 people in the pool area at a time.
“That’s what we were hitting over the weekend, and it was too much, so we lowered it (the capacity) to 300, and that’s when people started jumping the fences,” she said.
By Tuesday night, the Rochester Police Department had to be called at 6:23 p.m. to help start closing the pool and making sure people would leave. It was their first trip to the pool to address rule violations.
No issues were reported while police officers were on site, but Boldt said the city doesn’t want to have to rely on a continual police presence.
Kappes said the swim team is reaching out to community leaders to see if they will help encourage people to follow the rules when the pools reopen, but she added that the message will need to be broad, since offenders cover a variety of groups.
“It’s not any certain demographic, it’s not any certain age, it’s all across the board,” she said.
Reported unsafe activities have included fights, pushing, children being left unattended, lack of attention to the lifeguards and general disregard for pool rules.
Kappes said a successful plan to reopen the pools will likely require community support, especially among parents.
“The biggest thing to get across is that parents have to come with their kids,” she said, noting pool rules require an adult to accompany anyone 12 or younger at all times.
“When we are overwhelmed, with lines out the door, it’s hard to monitor that,” she said, noting parents often drop off their children and leave.
Kappes also said the lines could be better managed if pool users reserve space when the facilities reopen. The swim team has established an online reservation system using SignUpGenius.com to help monitor numbers and gather contacts that would be used, for example, to notify users of a COVID-19 outbreak.
Without reservations, patrons must wait in line to provide their names and phone numbers.
On Wednesday, before the pools were closed for open swim, 239 people had signed up for the noon to 3:45 p.m. slot at the Soldiers Field Pool, with a total of 300 potential spaces, and 186 were signed up for 4:15 p.m. to 8 p.m.
At the Silver Lake pool, 66 were signed up for one of 200 spots from noon to 2:15 p.m. and 46 were signed up for 2:45 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Boldt said swim lessons and swim team practices at the Soldiers Field pool are continuing during the open-swim closure, but similar activities haven’t started at the Silver Lake pool.